Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Look Back: The Big Empty Simone Felice, Ian Felice, Doctor Brown, Robert Burke

from 2003
Emerging from the Void:
The Big Empty Rages Against the Regime
By Sharon Nichols; Photos by Megan McQuade

The moment of conception. A silver night train sails on from Florence to Paris. In the confined space of a sleeper car, two American brothers, entranced by the hum, burn the midnight oil behind dusty red curtains. The elder is a poet, the younger a painter. Sipping wine, the brothers write furiously into the night: The hospital’s filled with the people’s disease/And we’ve run out of pills/But the secret police are in the bloodstream of everyone/In the free world/And the naked sun/Will burn until we hide it away. The embryo.

The painter hovers over a shiny black baby grand, extracting melancholy chords from the instrument’s hollow. The poet behind the mike is in his own movie, stomping furiously, singing, his head lurching on his neck like that of a shaken rag doll. His eyes bulge. He flaps his arms like a mad bird. He wipes the mike across his face. The poet pushes it out:
Moscow how does it feel to be a dead superpower?/Poor superpower/I remember your curtain years/You must be lonely/You won’t be lonely for long.

The crowd screams and pounds their feet on the wooden floor. Applause for the midwife. The Big Empty is born.

A Word’s Worth
Simone Felice is big on quotes. He’s got a thing for words, this poet, this spokesperson and chief emoter for the newborn band The Big Empty. He and his band members have an ongoing love affair with political commentary, and he relates two lines to me, lines from what he calls “two American literary giants.” The first is from Moby Dick.
“The killer is never hunted,” Felice recites from memory. “I never heard what sort of oil he has. Exception might be taken to the name bestowed upon this whale, on the grounds of its indistinctness. For we are all killers, on land and on sea.” Felice continues. “Melville is describing the respective species of whales worldwide, and he’s describing the killer whale. I read the line like 400 times, it hit me so hard.”

Felice’s second quote is from a man he calls Pure Immaculate George W.

“I heard him discussing the importance of a pre-emptive strike upon the desert nation of Iraq, and he delivered a statement that basically threw me to the ground. It goes like this.” Pause. Impersonation: “He tried to kill my daddy.” Felice laughs quietly.

The Big Empty. The name isn’t hard to figure out. It’s the sky above our heads. It’s the void we’re spinning in. It’s the barren, desolate place in the heart of mankind and in the American Dream. It’s something different to everyone because each has his own empty place inside. Add to the essence of that void a slowcore sound. Not the grinding of Mother Earth on her axis, but an unhurried Pink Floydesque mix of introspective mellows and consistently potent musical excursions that are sensitive enough to haunt you, yet painful enough to stain your mind. These boys spade through the soil of your most troubled imaginings. It might come as a surprise to the uninitiated—this is heavy-duty stuff.

Unlike most musicians, these cats are fueled by words. The band consists of three eloquent wordsmiths: “Doctor” Sean Brown and Ian and Simone Felice. Their lyrics are driven by beauty and loss, which they view as one and the same. They expound on weighty themes such as politics and love. “The hearts of man haven’t changed in all these millions of years,” says the front man. “We need, we fall in love, we dream, we sing, and we tear each other to pieces. There’s a fire inside us, and without that fire, man is naked and low. Fire is contained within all our proud creations—the gasoline engine, the hydrogen bomb. Fire gives mankind its meaning. And fire is the thing that will blow us apart.”
Between rehearsals, the band members continue to weave words—they adopt southern accents and pretend to play Scrabble to keep each other entertained. The players: Pure W and Uncle Cheney. Pure W hatches such words as “Tex” and “Jeb”. Uncle Cheney’s words are significantly larger: “Corporate Takeover” and “Biological Warfare.” “Tex is not a word, W,” complains Uncle Cheney. Pure W retorts, “Mark it down, Uncle Cheney! That’s six points!”

Fire In The House
Simone Felice sways in his ripped denim shirt at The Big Empty’s debut performance at Woodstock’s Colony Cafe on October 12. No one has yet heard this work aside from the band itself. The room seems a temple with its many burning candles, and 100-or-so listeners pack the building on a night when cold rain pelts the roof. Felice dedicates two love songs. One is for Uncle Cheney, the other is for Pure Immaculate Imperial All-Knowing W. Young brother Ian’s playing is passionate, tear-jerking. The poet stands offstage in the audience observing his boys, then steps on and delivers his oracle.

Leaders are ugly/Paper blood and counterfeit hearts/I’ve got no love for the government/I can’t believe in their adequate counterfeit/ I’ve been sick all my life to see/To see their holy gold overthrown.

Felice’s occasional twitching is reminiscent of a young David Byrne. He clutches his skull then extends his arms, giving the sign: a two-handed “W”.

Wouldn’t it kill you to apologize?/There’s no use in pulling out your eyes/You’ll never see them suffering/But you never seen them peering through dirty fences/How could you see their multitude through your dirty lenses?

Ian’s Dylanesque vocals take over. The vibe is unhappy, hungry. You can feel it in the music, and the words, and the space between the words.

I don’t have the grace to walk through this world the way you want me to/There’s a monster in my side and a hostage in my spine/When I hold myself up to the light.

Felice reaches two arms out to his brother in petition, then up to heaven. He holds himself as he sings his tempest. Doctor Brown, eyes closed, whacks the drums, shaking the very foundation of the room. These guys are pissed. Felice begins jumping, jerking. Lady Liberty is on the pyre.

Laugh until you’re blue at the blood in my eyes/You’re nothing but a whore to me, my love/My love/You kill the angels/Oh, my love.

At its climax, the room buzzes with energy. Felice kisses his brother on the heads. “I feel vindicated,” he utters into the mike.

Old Ghosts
The brothers Felice and Doctor Brown have been working feverishly in 2002 to complete their self-titled, 12-track debut CD. It will be recorded at Iiwii Studios in New York City in the last week of October and released on Superstar Records in December. One day, two takes for each song, antique mikes, all live, no overdubs. But perhaps the most noteworthy detail is that the album will be recorded with the piano John Lennon used when recording “Imagine”.

“Most of The Big Empty’s songs are piano-based,” explains Simone, “so I told our producer we needed a really nice piano, and he found this one. It really means a lot to us, and it was a deciding factor because we have such a great love for John Lennon. We’re gonna pull the ghosts from the room and from the streets in the city, we’re gonna pull the ghosts out of that piano and out of ourselves, and we’re gonna lay it down.”

Ian’s studies of painting in Italy and New York City drove him to set up his own art studio in Palenville. A self-taught musician, the 20-year-old also plays piano, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and bagpipes, sings harmony, and writes a good portion of the lyrics for The Big Empty. When he’s not writing, performing, or painting, he’s traveling the world or adventuring in the great outdoors with his brother.

A popular Woodstock poet, Simone Felice, author of The Picture Show, has delivered his words on the BBC to critical acclaim with poet Ainsley Burroughs, and has fronted and recorded CDs with several bands: Television Baby, Fuzz Deluxe, Prophet, Odd City. His second book of prose and poetry, Tomorrow Will Come, is complete, and he’s working toward a master’s degree in creative writing at Empire State College so he can teach poetry. As the charismatic leader of The Big Empty, the 26-year-old provides a mesmerizing stage presence for which he is well known, but he’d like to put his old ghosts behind him. “What we’re doing with The Big Empty is what I’ve been waiting to do my whole life,” he says. “I’m able to work with my brother, my best friend. We have something between us that is ancient and profound. Only recently in working with him do I feel I’ve found my true voice as a singer. I’ve always been able to write words. But aside from my prose, this project is what I’m bleeding on from now to the end of time.”

Doctor Brown and Ian have been friends since childhood, so Brown is like a third brother to the Felices. He plays drums, acoustic guitar, and harmonica, provides vocal harmony, and composes with the group. His other creative endeavor is that of amateur wine and beer making. In a basement wine cellar that smells like a cave, he brews crazy apple wine and voluminous bottles of hard cider and beer. He’s the scientist, the technician, the doctor of the band, grounding everyone and figuring things out. An outdoorsman, he also studies forestry. Together the three men rehearse in their studio in Palenville, a sanctuary in the woods on the Kaaterskill Creek where they can work and feel at peace, isolated from the red, white, and blue while at the same time penning songs about it.

The man who found Lennon’s piano is producer is Robert “Chicken” Burke, probably best known as the producer for George Clinton and his own band, Drugs. He’s The Big Empty’s “modern day dirty magician,” a man who can pull up the spirits. Burke shares a studio in Chichester with bassist Adam Widoff, who plays and writes bass lines with The Big Empty. Known for his work with Lenny Kravitz, Madonna, and the B-52s, Widoff is also acting as co-producer. Widoff is a member of Drugs and plays electric guitar, piano, and clavinet. The band also enlists Justin Trushell and his ‘80s vintage Roland Juno for the CD and live gigs, adding a subtle etheric vibe to several songs. A DJ, Trushell produces and creates dance and techno music from his own Palenville studio. He’s been friends with Simone since they learned to walk, and the pair have traveled Europe together. Another long-time friend, John Brown, has been in the picture since the fourth grade bus stop. He fills in as drummer when Doctor Brown is on guitar. He and Felice have performed in bands together since they started out in grandpa’s barn. As a comrade in the outer ensemble, The Big Empty wouldn’t be complete without him.

Politics are not only embedded in the band’s lyrics, but in the album artwork as well. The cover will be printed in deep red, as that of Soviet propaganda. The bald focus is on the three words—”the”, “big”, and “empty”—lined up much like those Scrabble board pieces. The words were conscientiously extracted and copied from a particular book and took the boys three or four hours of skimming to locate. They have their own agenda for this. The book, which they’d rather not name for copyright reasons, is a dark masterpiece which has torn them apart and shaped the way they feel about destiny and humankind.

“The people who have the power,” continues the front man, “these are aliens. All they care about is self-preservation. They would throw their own mothers in a fire to save themselves and their oil.”

This new musical project of beauty and loss, revolution and hope, angst and abstraction is aching to be heard. They will unleash their ghosts for the second time at a CD release party on Friday, December 13, at The Uptown in Kingston. On December 19, they will perform at Joyous Lake in Woodstock for WDST Live Sessions. For more information, call The Uptown at 339-8440.
I am looking for a copy of The Big Empty if anyone can help!